How I Learned to Relax and Love Archaic Language
A word, like a person, lives and dies. We cannot fight neologisms. Time marches on and languages rise and fall. Even though we might quietly shudder at the thought of “googling” information and living a “green” lifestyle, it displays a lack of gentlemanly noblesse oblige to put up too much of a fuss. Friends, let us not stand athwart the progress of history and impose a false conservatism on a living, breathing language. Words change definition, old words fall out of use, new ones are created, and we must make our peace.
However, one must absolutely draw the line somewhere. I absolutely will not “hack” my life for convenient living, or believe that a “feminist” is a pop star who dances on a stage in her underpants while wheezing out a vocal. And don’t even get me started on the way that errors eventually become the norm, such as “chomping at the bit” and “irregardless.” I also hate how words like “terrible” and “awesome” have entirely changed meaning (but I admit that I am venturing into curmudgeon territory here).
Language changes, yes, and sometimes that is a bad development. Not all change can be automatically ascribed to a positive evolution, sometimes it is Darwin warning us our culture has wandered into a cul-de-sac and we need to put the car in reverse and step on the gas.
Words, because they are alive, stretch their legs and take a walk out into the ether, suspended somewhere between speaker and listener. The speaker may intend one meaning and the listener have understood another. The word has taken on a sign value not entirely in our control anymore. (which is why silence is the wisdom of the Fox). This holds true, in fact, for all art. I am not such a good philosopher that I would want to make any specific claims for meaning and symbol and just how much is subjective and how much is objective, but hopefully we can all agree that language, while retaining a healthy level of objective meaning, is often deceptively complex. What we think we communicate is not always the case.
This difficulty becomes the absolute joy of a poet, for language offers infinite possibilities and shades of meaning. A poem, Aristotle reminds us, is the language of possibility. It is about what might be and what ought to be. If facts and specificities are employed at all, they are always in service of the whole, which exists beyond individual instances. The ambiguity of words allows the poet to refer to the mysterious reality that intertwines with ours and yet is well beyond it. Gerard Manley Hopkins defines the problem as how one is to use words to make present The Word. He solves the problem by essentially breaking language down to a song of related words that inform each other by their proximity. For instance, in “Pied Beauty” he writes:
Glory be to God for dappled things
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.
Language, for Hopkins, has become a dance of individual words that are related, rhyming, speeding past the reader and dazzling so that the mind is taken away from any specific actuality to which they refer and directed towards the universal, the God who fathers-forth all of creation. In the same way a son is a living icon of his father, so too are all things icons of the Creator God. Hopkins has as his goal a beauty of language that will transport us to the inner heart of all things. It is here that we see the resemblance most clearly.
Poetically, there is another way of accomplishing the same goal, through the use of archaism. This is the intentional deployment of words that have fallen out of regular use or whose meanings have changed drastically over the years and yet the poet refers to the original use, often situating them in a new context. A master of this art is TS Eliot. His Four Quartets are about the cyclical, changing nature of life, how we drill down through the flux of nature and into the still place at the center, from the part to the whole. He talks about words in the same manner as Hopkins; “Words…reach ,/into the silence.” And, “Words strain/Crack and sometimes break…/decay with imprecision.” It is in the space beyond the words (although somehow mediated by those very words) that we encounter the unchangeable Divine.
Here is the Heraclitean flow as described in the Quartets:
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Eliot comes back to the cyclical nature of time again and again, making the form follow the theme and forcing language to enter into mortal combat with itself through contradiction. Only after we break through the white noise of words do we find the stillness on the other side,
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Eliot is a great appropriator of the writing of other poets, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that mimics his deconstruction of language. For instance, he quotes Spenser’s “Epithalamion”
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessary conjunction,
That is some intense, Elizabethan archaism. What is its purpose in what we would consider a modern poem? Well, it actually introduces into the overall vocabulary itself a contradiction. It is as if there are two dictionaries fighting each other. This is a more fundamental way to accomplish what is done by the individual word pairings such as, “destroyed/restored, rise/fall, extended/removed, flesh/fleshless, past/future.” There is a juxtaposition of modern with ancient, showing that language itself is not exempt from the constant flux of nature; words are not The Word.
Eliot shows the great potential of archaic language when incorporated into poetry by a skilled writer and he uses it in such a way that not only do the individual words contradict but the entire poem itself is a contradiction. The archaic words themselves still retain their meaning (they aren’t turned into neologisms), so they convey the theme both in the rediscovery of their original meaning and by the way they redefine the formal structure of the poem. This works so well precisely because these words have detailed definitions, and although they have fallen out of use, they retain objective meaning. Old words might be dead, but in the hands of a gifted poet there is always the possibility of resurrection. We would be mistaken to dismiss their use so easily in favor of purely contemporary vocabulary.
On a more simple level, archaism will grab the reader’s attention. I admit that this may appear gimmicky when done poorly, but consider the case of the new English translation for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Archaism has been introduced into the very sentence structure as all of the collects have come to both more accurately reflect the ancient Latin rhythms as dependent clauses pile up upon each other as well as to more closely align with older English formulations of those same collects. By doing so, the prayers become more expressive of the poetic intent of the Mass. It would make sense that the Mass would proceed in a poetic manner, after all, it is the very act of a people who are seeking the God beyond them. We are the part seeking the whole.
An unfamiliar word with the whiff of antiquity about it creates mystery for the reader to solve. The Mass is not “contemporary” (a hilariously archaic word in its own right) or “modern” (again, funny). It is not an everyday newspaper article that will be out of date the next day. It is a timeless artifact that requires a close reading. It is an adventure! The low-level grumbling in response to the new translation was enough to put the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to shame. Particularly odious to the complainers was the change in the Nicene Creed, which went from “one in being” to “consubstantial.” What old-fashioned nonsense is this, proponents of modern language cried! This new word, the complaint goes, is archaic. It has lost its meaning. It is technical. No one knows the definition and it is not user-friendly. What such a complaint overlooks, though, is that the word has the great virtue of being incredibly precise. It emerges from the crucible of a philosophical discussion with deep roots. This one little word has worlds of meaning packed into it. It brings us back to ancient Nicaea and Plato’s Ladder of Being and Santa angrily punching the heretic Arius in the face. This is a word that is experienced in vibrant color, it smells of incense, whereas in the service of relatability and ease of understanding, the previous phrase was gray and boring. Worse than that, the “modern” translation was quickly falling out of fashion. The now more faithfully rendered translation, archaism and all, is timeless.
(I have a lot more to say and will post more on archaism soon. Hopefully this interests others as much as it interests me! Teaser: Tolkien, the television show Deadwood, and the original King James Bible)